Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Edinburgh Legend/stalwart Guy Masterson gives a tour de force of one man show virtuosity in this faithful yet innovative, unseasonal yet oddly appropriate much loved Christmas classic.
“Oh not Christmas Carol AGAIN!” It’s been filmed innumerable times for TV and cinema, muppeted, adapted as a musical, updated, re-interpreted, turned into Panto, pastiched, lampooned and, perhaps most damning of all, put in the GCSE curriculum. Is there any short novella that has been more culturally exploited in history? Almost certainly not.
A dangerous decision then, for Olivier Award-winner Guy Masterson to select what many would see as a hackneyed and overworked piece and apply to it his undoubtedly impressive talents, both as writer and performer. It’s a cash cow that has been ridden by many other eminent performers after all; Simon Callow and Patrick Stewart in recent years spring to mind, and Gary Sefton’s magnificent adaptation in 2016.
What does Masterson bring to the already groaning A Christmas Carol table that is new? Well for a start, it’s the Summer. “Australians do it!” is the publicity gag, but actually, it really isn’t a problem. Quite the reverse. It may be Summer, but this is Edinburgh, so the skies are leaden and grey as any midwinter day elsewhere. Less flippantly, there is something immediately refreshing about looking at a Christmas classic from the fresh perspective of the Summertime; it’s a piece that is infused with cold, with the physical privations of ice and snow and dark, and the enjoyment of merriment and togetherness that can keep the real and metaphorical dark at bay. Being reminded of the dark days, and how to be a better person, and keep a better Christmas, seems more instructive, more actually useful, with a bit of distance in the year. Even Scrooge gets some advance warning, after all.
The second innovation is much more important. This is, truly, a one-person show. It has elements of narration and storytelling, yes, (and Masterson’s Burtonesque baritone does this beautifully), but unlike any other solo version I have seen, it is a genuine and astonishingly successful attempt by one person to people the stage with all of Dickens characters. Masterson uses the full panoply of voice, characterisation, physicality, mime, dance, sound effect and music to terrific effect, effortlessly slipping between character and place, simultaneously building word pictures of the scenes as he goes. It is only when he pauses briefly for a drink he wishes was beer about forty minutes in that you appreciate the awesome work rate this requires.
It is a mesmerising, breathless construction, and finally answers the question: can a one man show be truly a drama? Turns out, yes it can, providing you have a world class actor, a tight and atmospheric script, and minimal but clever and evocative sound design. These three things have to work doubly hard when you consider the set is a chair, a hook for a coat, and a coat. That is it; but you will have been as present at Mr Fezziwig’s revels as you have ever been; as enchanted and frightened by the ghosts as you were at the age of ten, and you wilL let slip involuntary tears of pity for a Tiny Tim who is only seen in the place Masterson makes for him in your mind’s eye.
The final refreshment of this well trodden path is the adaptation. It is muscular, spare, but full of the richness and wit of the original. It seems remarkably faithful to the source, and there is no concession to modernity, which is a blessing to all true fans of Dickens and his wit. Making Dickens’ jokes lift off the page and sing is no simple matter, but this version, in the hands of Masterson, makes you remember anew why A Christmas Carol is such a perennial favourite. Because it is wonderful. It is funny, scary, moving and uplifting, and once the encrustations of a hundred other Christmases and innumerable other versions are knocked off it, the shiny sixpence of brilliance and originality remains undimmed underneath.
I urge you to go and rediscover something you thought you knew all too well, and join the standing ovation at the end.